This is the second of five student final reflection papers from my Sociology of Guns seminar at Wake Forest University.
For reference, the assignment was: In this final essay, you will revisit your previous personal experience with and understanding of guns in the U.S. (as expressed, e.g., in the field trip reflection essay) in light of your consideration of the role guns actually do play in American society. Reflecting on what you learned from completing your major writing assignment, as well as the class more generally, discuss how your mind has (and/or has not) changed. Conclude this paper by considering what more you need to know in order to make informed choices about your own participation with and the place of guns in the communities in which you live and will live in the future.
By Mary Daniel Cheek
Prior to taking this class, my opinion on the role that guns play in American society was shaped by two main sources. First, my family helped shape my view on guns by giving me exposing me to recreational gun use, such as hunting and target practice. As a child, I did not view guns as a potential threat to my safety, but as a way to have fun and bond with family. Second, news outlets, and their coverage of mass shootings in particular, helped shape and alter the view of guns I held as a child. One of my most vivid memories as a teenager was hearing a radio news report about the Sandy Hook shooting and the subsequent discussion of the effect of the shooting on gun control legislation. During this period of my life, as I heard seemingly constant coverage of mass shootings, I came to view guns less as recreational tools and more as controversial objects to be feared and which could serve no beneficial purpose to society.
Therefore, when I enrolled in the Sociology of Guns course, I hoped to gain a more informed, factual perspective on all aspects of guns, not just mass homicide and gun control laws. This hope was fully realized over the course of the semester. I now have a deeper understanding of American gun culture and how it manifests itself on personal, community-wide, and societal levels. For example, knowing that guns are venerated by some Americans and used to express masculinity helps me understand the anger such gun owners express when new gun control laws are implemented.
Upon completion of the class, I find that my views on gun owners as individuals and the power of the media in shaping American gun culture have changed the most. The image of the typical American gun owner is consistent with the person who first introduced me to guns. White, conservative, middle-aged men do comprise the majority of American gun owners, but I as I learned this semester, this stereotype is more nuanced than it seems and is quickly evolving. I now know that the racial and age demographic characteristics of someone who owns only handguns differs greatly from those who own only long guns. Also, women and non-heterosexuals are consuming American gun culture more than ever before. Whether through groups like the Pink Pistols or armed self-defense classes taught only for women, the American gun owner is starting to look less like a cowboy and more like an average citizen. My perception of gun owners has also evolved greatly over the semester. At the start of the semester, I thought that people who fiercely cling to their guns and proudly proclaim their right to bear arms were stubborn and paranoid. While many such gun owners do have an inflated perception of the daily danger they are actually in, most of these people are harmless and simply want to protect themselves and their families. Additionally, I never considered how these pro-gun sentiments may be due to distrust or lack of faith in the police prior to this class.
After taking this class, I am more aware of how powerful the media is in shaping Americans’ attitudes toward guns. Aside from the obvious partisan bias for or against gun control that exists in different news sources, I was shocked to discover how the volume of firearms news coverage compares to the volume of actual gun violence. Nearly constant coverage of mass shootings in the aftermath of these tragedies make such events seem more prevalent than they actually are. Because of this class, I am now more aware of the lack of media coverage on some facets of gun culture. For example, firearm fatalities receive exponentially more news coverage than non-fatal gun injuries despite the majority of gunshot victims receiving non-fatal gunshot injuries.
While I found the topics covered in the readings and in class to be fascinating, I highly valued hearing the perspectives of the guest speakers. Both speakers defied my expectations of what a typical firearms instructor would say and do. I expected both men to be so extremely pro-gun that they would not entertain any of the concerns for those who desire stricter gun control laws. However, both speakers admitted the flaws that exist in America’s management of gun culture and supported their assertions with fact. If every American gun owner was as respectful and honest as these speakers were, I would be more willing to engage them in conversation about their attitudes toward firearms.
After conducting research on the intersection of firearms and intimate partner violence for the major writing assignment, I better understand the complexity of firearms and their role in Americans’ daily lives. Astoundingly, the presence of a firearm in the home increases the risk of homicide by 1200%. For most Americans, having a firearm in the home brings a sense of safety and security, but for victims of intimate partner violence, firearms in the home conjure fear and paranoia. After learning more about firearm seizures policies in domestic violence restraining order cases, I now realize how greatly the perceptions of gun danger are among Americans. For example, 28% of judges who preside over domestic violence restraining order cases fail to discuss seizing the abusers’ firearms because they do not perceive the threat against the woman as great enough to justify firearm confiscation. Collectively, I learned from this research that even well-intentioned laws are not universally enforced and often fail to protect those they were designed to keep safe from gun violence.
The single greatest lesson I have taken away from this class is that American gun culture is complicated and multi-layered. It is harmful to oversimplify issues that arise from gun culture.
Because of this class, I am more willing to engage people in conversation about guns. I am also more sympathetic to people who proudly proclaim their right to bear arms. In the future, I need to consistently consume balanced news coverage about guns in order to make more informed choices about my own participation in American gun culture. Should I ever decide to purchase a gun or obtain a concealed carry permit, I need to identify how my perception of threats to my safety differ from the actual level of danger that exists. Perhaps most importantly, I also need to determine the weight that firearms issues will play when I vote. If I decide that I want to vote for a candidate with a certain stance on guns, I need to fully educate myself about their position in order to make an informed decision. Ultimately, this class has demonstrated that American gun culture is often an emotionally charged topic but is best understood through scholarly pursuit of fact. Resultantly, seeking factual information about guns in American should be paramount in shaping views on all aspects of American gun culture and if every American prioritized this pursuit of fact, our country would benefit greatly.